As a lifelong Metro-North patron who’s presently writing this review while on the train back home from Manhattan, I can confidently pronounce The Commuter to be the most realistic film ever made about the hell that is commuting.
To be sure, Jaume Collet-Serra’s thriller doesn’t get the details of day-to-day New York City railway travel right—the next time I feel comfortable getting down on my hands and knees in a train bathroom (as Liam Neeson’s hero does) will be the first time, by which I mean the last time, since performing such an act would immediately cause me to catch the plague. Nonetheless, the litany of logistical errors found in this breakneck action saga have little bearing on its overarching verisimilitude, given how forcefully it conveys the nightmarish agony experienced by anyone, and everyone, forced to shuttle back and forth from the suburbs to the city for work. It’s a fantasy when it comes to its subject’s specifics, and a documentary when it comes to its spirit.
The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between Collet-Serra and his favorite leading man Neeson, and as with their airborne Non-Stop and the director’s Blake Lively-versus-a-shark The Shallows, it’s an exercise in suspenseful constriction, involving an everyperson dealing with extraordinary circumstances set in a confined physical space. In this case, that protagonist is Michael MacCauley, a former cop who for the past 10 years has dragged himself out of bed each morning at 6 a.m. to put on a suit and tie, chat in the kitchen with his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman), and take the morning locomotive from Tarrytown to the Big Apple to sell life insurance. It’s a routine life that allows Michael to scrape by—if just barely. And it’s no sooner established by Collet-Serra via a concise opening credit sequence than it’s torn apart when Michael is unceremoniously fired. A couple of beers later with old partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson), and he’s headed back home to have an unpleasant conversation with his spouse.
Collet-Serra shoots inside and outside Grand Central Terminal, but in most other respects, The Commuter’s portrait of Michael’s to-and-fro journey is the stuff of Hollywood make-believe. His train’s cars boast tables across which friendly men and women sit. Passengers know each other (and their regular ticket-takers) by name. Everyone is pleasant and chatty—or, in the case of an obnoxious investment banker, openly censured by those sitting nearby. And then there are the aforementioned spotless bathrooms: a dead giveaway that no one involved in this film has ever been forced to use one of those cramped, soiled hot boxes during a bumpy rush-hour trip. That Michael’s train route also features a number of non-existent stops (86th and Lexington?), and his vehicle features floor hatches big enough to store dead bodies, are simply further examples of the proceedings’ unnecessary—if amusingly goofy—fancifulness.
When it comes to fantasticality, of course, nothing about The Commuter beats the sight of Neeson gamely continuing to strike a grizzled badass pose. Initially presented as a sad-sack victim of corrupt corporate villainy (as he tells the sleazy banker, “On behalf of the American middle class: Fuck you!”), Neeson’s MacCauley is given the chance to prove his good-guy credentials when, on his return train ride, Joanna (Vera Farmiga) sits across from him and gives him a hypothetical question: Would you carry out a single act that has no effect on you, and only has ramifications for a stranger, for $100,000? That query, MacCauley learns, isn’t in fact theoretical, as he’s quickly embroiled in a secretive mission to find an unfamiliar passenger and plant a GPS tracker on their bag before they get off at the Cold Springs station.
As this assignment soon leads to fisticuffs, gunplay, and worse, one half-expects the 65-year-old Neeson to channel Danny Glover and declare, “I’m getting too old for this shit!” Especially in the late going, when the actor’s face is consistently, and awkwardly, CGI-grafted onto a stunt double’s body, The Commuter feels like confirmation that—after a decade of making sturdy B-movies like Taken, Unknown, and Run All Night—the star has gotten a bit too long in the tooth for such beat-’em-ups. And yet before MacCauley finally kicks righteous ass and saves the day (yeah, yeah, spoiler alert), Collet-Serra at least nods to his headliner’s advanced age, especially in an initial brawl that finds MacCauley primarily on the receiving end of a whupping courtesy of a younger adversary.
Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle’s script balances such physical clashes with a healthy dose of panicked-wronged-man mystery, making the film play like a cross between Strangers on a Train and Die Hard (or Non-Stop on Rails). Collet-Serra has a brisk, confident style that keeps exposition to a reasonable minimum and only gets showmanship-y on special occasions—in this case, a faux-single-take fight scene that’s too herky-jerky by half, and a digitally enhanced reverse zoom through the train that captures an authentic sense of its cars’ crowded, cluttered, noisy atmosphere. As in much of his prior work, the director knows how to make no-nonsense genre material hum, keeping the pace propulsive and the combat frequent while also granting his lead enough time to color his character in nuanced shades.
Alas, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Literally phoning in much of their performances, Wilson and Farmiga merely appear on-screen early and late, which makes it seem like they wandered in from some The Conjuring sequel filming nearby. Sam Neill and Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks are given even shorter shrift as, respectively, MacCauley’s old boss and his cheerily pessimistic commuting buddy. And Florence Pugh, so magnetic in last year’s Lady Macbeth, is barely recognizable or utilized as a tattooed and pierced teenager who totes around a backpack full of contraband and utters only a few meager lines amidst the mounting chaos.
In its squandering of so many talented actors, and its inexplicable refusal to indulge in cheesy one-liners (where’s my “Your ticket has been punched!” send-off?!), The Commuter proves something of a missed opportunity: a chance to really enrich a daffy premise with some scenery-chewing personality. As it stands, it’s an efficient, diverting new entry in Neeson’s ongoing action canon, albeit one which suggests his He-Man career route has finally—cue ’90s-era zoom into close-up!—reached the end of the line.